Fear and Loathing in Europe

Two far-right parties, the Austrian Freedom Party and the Movement for Austria’s Future, won 29% of the vote in the latest Austrian general election, double their total in the 2006 election. Both parties share the same attitudes toward immigrants, especially Muslims, and the European Union: a mixture of fear and loathing. Since the two parties’ leaders, Heinz-Christian Strache and Jörg Haider, despise each other, there is little chance of a far-right coalition taking power. Nonetheless, this is Adolf Hitler’s native land, where Jews were once forced to scrub Vienna’s streets with toothbrushes before being deported and killed, so the result is disturbing. But how disturbing?

That 29% is about 15% more than populist right-wing parties get in very good years (for them) in other European countries. Strache, the leader of the Freedom Party, wants the government to create a new ministry to manage the deportation of immigrants. Muslims are openly disparaged. Haider once praised the employment practices of Hitler’s Third Reich. Inevitably, the new rightists bring back memories of storm troopers and race laws.

Yet, to see the rise of the Austrian right as a revival of Nazism is a mistake. Neither party advocates violence, even if some of their rhetoric might inspire it. Voters for the far right may be motivated less by ideology than by anxieties and resentments that are felt in many European countries, including ones with no Nazi tradition, such as The Netherlands and Denmark.

In Denmark, the hard-right Danish People’s Party, with 25 parliamentary seats, is the country’s third largest party. Dutch populists, such as Rita Verdonk or Geert Wilders, who is driven by a paranoid fear of “Islamization,” are putting the traditional political elites – a combination of liberals, social democrats, and Christian democrats – under severe pressure.